You die at the Lovisenberg hospice in Oslo at the end of August 2016. You’re supposed to die within a week, but that’s not what happens. You hang on for two, though we’re luckily not kicked out. Not long enough to remember the nurses by names, but long enough to notice when someone stops visiting and a room clears out. At some point my sister and I are no longer allowed admittance into your room; this is before you sink into full-time daydreaming and semi-consciousness. It’s a tiring thing, dying, and you feel that you need to pull yourself together whenever we visit. Though we never want that. So when you finally let go and sink below the surface where dreams and reality intermingle indiscriminately, we come back inside. Here’s a fact: there is nothing serene about watching someone die. It’s confusing and slightly frustrating, as we never know which breath will be your last. So, in effect, every one of your breaths is the last one, and you end up dying every single moment I am watching you. In reality, those accustomed to death can usually tell when someone is nearing the end. The tips of their noses whiten. Their faces gain an angularity not previously known. Their breath, smooth and easy, becomes an unreliable, fickle visitor.
In the 1965 science fiction classic Dune by Frank Herbert there is a description of how to cross a large stretch of sand without attracting the giant, carnivorous worms that swim through the landscape. The key is to walk unevenly and arhythmically. In a random fashion, so to speak. This, the hero Paul Atreides tells us, is strenuous and exhausting. Our bodies and minds want evenness and balance. Consistency. Safety in continuous and predictable repetition.
I think of Dune, now:
I imagine you stumbling through a hot desert, capricious yet at ease. Dancing towards death.
Death and life are not, as I thought before you started dying, expressed in the binary numeral system, with living as the state of 1 and dead as the state of 0. No, dying is a slow unveiling. A nebulous event. It is not the flick of a switch from light to dark, although that does eventually happen. You are dying, and perhaps what that means is that you forget how to do things, one by one. First you forget your restraints and chase us out, my sister and I. Then, in turn, you forget what reality feels like as you see a butler enter the room and offer you a cocktail from a tray of glasses. You politely decline, and probably you know that he isn’t really there and that you are dreaming, but perhaps it doesn’t actually matter anymore. Soon you forget what it’s like to be awake and conscious. The final thing you forget is how to breathe. The last guest to leave the party, reluctant to go. It stops, and I’m certain that you are dead. I feel the shock and disbelief gradually twist my spine into the shape of grief, but then, as if you’ve suddenly remembered that you are alive, you draw air again.
You are dead. You were dead on a warm summer afternoon when school had started up, with autumn as a promise in the air. A tiny, old lady in a white blouse, wrinkled skin stretched across porous bones and immaculate stainless steel, and I thought, you don’t look like that at all.
I have made a net that breathes. It is a heralder of good tidings, of not-death-yet. It is looking at you not looking back. It is you, dancing through the desert on certain, steady feet. It is a last drawing of air, over and over again.
No One Should Be Alone in Their Old Age is a meditation on death and the moments preceding it. A large-scale kinetic installation, it draws a single breath once an hour, suspended somewhere in between the floor and the ceiling before it again collapses on the ground. It is the moment before death, an infinite vigil.